The 9 Rings Of Music Theory

tree rings

How do you get out of your musical ruts? How do you break free from repeating all the same things you’ve been doing over and over, and inject some new life into your music?

Glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I can think of several ways.

You can make a point of listening to artists and styles you don’t normally listen to. You can play with other people and have them show you licks. You can find a teacher who inspires you.

And those are all good ways.

But the clearest way, to me, is to get a handle on the big picture, locate yourself in it, then take the next step toward something better. First get some basics down, then add something more advanced to spice things up a little.

 Growth Rings

tree rings closeupOne way to think of music theory is as a series of concentric circles, like the annual rings or growth rings of a tree. At the center are the foundations, the basic elements for life and health. Each ring moving outward adds new tonal material or a new way of looking at the relationships within the previous ring.

In the center, it is simple, it is predictable, and it is safe. At the outermost ring, the relationships are cutting edge with the rest of the world, beaten and railed against by the storms of artistic whim and public opinion. It is not safe out at the edge. Exciting, yes. But not safe.

Here is how I envision the skeleton of 21st century American (western) music theory. Just like the growth rings of a tree.

At the core:

Simple major chords (I IV V) and pentatonic melodies (for simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles)

Layer 2:

Alter a couple of tones to create minor pentatonic melodies (Blues)

Layer 3:

Add more scale tones to create the triads generated from a major scale. Use major and minor pentatonic melodies (for all of the above styles as well as Pop)

Layer 4:

Add more scale tones at a time for embellished chords, and and use the entire major scale for more sophisticated melodies (approaching Jazz, as well as developing all the others)

Layer 5:

Displace roots within the major scale for various modalities (i.e. Dorian, Phrygian modes, et al)

Layer 6:

Add an additional tone outside the scale for secondary dominants and altered chords

Layer 7:

Dysfunctional Harmony explores relationships not based on tension and resolution as all the previous levels are

Layer 8:

Full Chromaticism uses every 1/2 step for more complex, but still explainable, progressions and melodies

Layer 9:

Out Of The Blue. This is where I use whatever tonal material I want, whenever I want, simply because I can

This is a pretty good analogy, and it has served me very well over the years. Doubtless, I’m leaving something out, but I think as a basic structure, it works.

Make It Your Own

You can, of course, add to it and refine it as you wish. You can move along historical lines if that makes more sense to you, from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance, to Baroque and Rococo to Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, Modern, 20th Century. Then (thanks to technological improvements from the Gramophone to the iPhone), you can feel free to trace through Jazz, Country & Western, Rock & Roll, Easy Listening, Opera, Broadway, Disco, Alternative Rock, Grunge, Indi, Electronica, Rap, and many other small distinctions that get tedious, to say the least.

The goal of an analogy like this is to give you an idea of what’s out there. How much of this do you know and use? If you recognize elements on one ring but not on another, it may help you know what to explore next.

The more simply I can think about music theory, the more helpful it is to me. And as I consider these growth rings for my own music, each one inspires me to learn more, to grow my expertise and ability on each level.

Do these music theory rings make sense to you? How far can you go in finding and playing songs on every ring?

Please leave a comment below if you’d like, or you can email your questions on music theory or next-step musicianship to [email protected].
© 2014 Steve Case